The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
An aging senator (Jimmy Stewart) returns to the town in which he is famous for killing the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), in order to attend the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne). The story of what really happened to Liberty Valance is then told through flash-back….
Not so much a review this time, more of a love-letter.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has a stellar cast and a legendary director in John Ford. It’s unfortunate that on release in 1962 this movie was mostly derided as a “has-been” picture by an “over-the-hill” director. A bigger critical mistake has not been made in cinema history.
On the cast, John Wayne needs no introduction (he’s the hard-man) and nor does James Stewart (he’s the lawyer) but it is the character actors and members of the “John Ford Stock Company” who make this film so endearing. Starting with the ‘good guys’ behind Wayne and Stewart; we have Edmund O’Brien as the alcoholic newspaper man who likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice; Andy Devine as the cowardly lard-arse town marshall; Woody Strode as Wayne’s dilligent right-hand man and Ken Murray as the only half-sober town doctor (Murray’s lines in Valance’s death scene are immortal). All of these actors are simply fantastic in this picture yet I would single out Edmund O’Brien’s performance as being of almost hypnotic quality – you just can’t take your eyes off him and his booze-fuelled rantings.
Now, turning to the ‘bad guys’. Lee Marin plays the grizzly Liberty Valance with an air of such menace and violence you can almost smell him through the screen. Valance’s stooges are the hawk-faced Lee Van Cleef – who does nothing more than squint through the dark, but does it so well, that he terrifies you – and the somewhat crazed prairie-scumbag Strother Martin. Both Van Cleef and Martin would go on to great careers – Van Cleef with Sergio Leone and Martin with Peckinpah – and watching this film, you can see why. Lastly, John Carrdine’s sardonic role as the voice-piece of the cattlemen is wildly amusing and the beautiful Vera Miles completes the set as Wayne and Stewart’s love interest.
Ford’s camerawork is stunning but atypical. Gone are the panoramic landscapes of his early career and in are the soundstages with all the claustrophobic trappings they come with. Most of the movie takes place in darkened streets, hectic kitchens, smokey saloons and a ramshackle newspaper office; there are no open plains to be found here. The shadows the soundstages create play a major role in Ford’s picture. Lee Marvin grins maniacally out of them, Wayne uses them for both physical and emotional cover whilst Vera Miles spends the film running from them. This is so much more than a run-of-the-mill western.
There are some unique, but by now classic, scenes. The killing of Liberty Valance is shot magnificently, but the stand-out sequence for me is a drunken Wayne throwing himself through his front door and burning down his half-built house in a vain attempt to rid himself of the love he harbours for Miles, now that she has fallen for Stewart. Retrospectively, there is a poignant funeral scene in which Stewart, Miles, Strode and Devine sit-in-silence around the pauper’s coffin housing Wayne himself, a scene which reminded me very much of Wayne’s sombre final movie “The Shootist” (1976).
One can over-analyze this film. Many critics have claimed that this shows Ford’s increasingly jaded view of the western legend, a legend which the film basically debunks (note one of the final lines in the movie, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact. print the legend”), but I just reckon this showed how Ford had changed as a director as he had as a man – everyone becomes cynical as they get older. You don’t need an in-depth critical analysis of films like this and Ford always baulked at the auteur theory of film-making. Just enjoy the story-telling, the performances and the terrific black and white visuals.
In summary, it’s a ripping yarn and you won’t find a richer tapestry of actors in any other western ….in the humble opinion of hotdog, the best John Ford cowboy movie – and that’s saying something.
hotdog rating: 10/10
ps. for a great “music-video” of the movie to Gene Pitney’s classic song see below